A peace resolution reveals the polarization of our thinking
As Patricia Axelrod rose during the public-comment period to read aloud a peace resolution to the Reno City Council, she set a picture of a charred corpse on the overhead projector. The chamber soon disintegrated into a strange, telling moment, the city attorney barking procedure, people shouting at each other, a gavel pounding and the usual pack of local-government watchdogs baying at a fascist moon. The scene featured much of the flair of a Vietnam-era sit-in and at least a bit of the petty melodrama of a network soap opera.
“It’s been a very emotional morning,” said Councilmember Toni Harsh, whose son, a U.S. marine, is stationed in Kuwait. She had no further comment. Councilmembers had refused to place the anti-war resolution on the agenda, following city staff’s decision that “foreign policy is not something that is generally recognized as being within the purview of the Reno City Council.”
(Ironically, late last year, the Reno City Council approved a partnership with Kabul, Afghanistan, to help the war-torn country rebuild. After the plan was nixed by the federal government as being too dangerous, Reno partnered up with Bangalore, India, to help that city improve its economy.)
Passions at the Mar. 12 meeting came to a boiling point. Axelrod continued presenting pictures as City Attorney Patricia Lynch argued, “There is no requirement under the open-meeting law to allow people to use anything other than the microphone.” Finally a staff member turned off the overhead projector.
“That is completely unconstitutional,” fumed Axelrod. “I sat here last week and saw three people use this equipment. Your fascist actions have already denied the people of Reno this important dialogue. Every one of you should be ashamed.”
“It was a weird thing,” commented gadfly Sam Dehne. He didn’t necessarily think the action was directed at peace resolution supporters, yet he and others noted that visual aids are a routine part of public presentations at council meetings. He said it was “cowardly and dastardly” of council to put up another barrier between citizens and their representatives.
Afterward, Lynch left the chamber to explain the context of the issue to Axelrod. She said that someone had once attempted to display inappropriate material on the equipment. The document she offered as evidence that council has discretion to prevent the display of pictures, however, didn’t seem on point. She presented Axelrod a letter from the state Attorney General’s Office stating that Sam Dehne can be ejected from a room for disrupting a public meeting.
No one on the council claimed the photos were a disruption.
Instead, staff and council announced that “no one” was allowed to use pictures during the public-comment period. Outside the chamber, a Gazette-Journal reporter recalled that people have often, and recently, displayed photos while speaking. To clarify the matter, council placed the procedural issue as an agenda item for its next meeting.
“The idea that you can’t put a picture up here is ridiculous,” Dehne told council. “It’s despicable, and you ought to be embarrassed.”
The chaotic moment inside City Hall revealed in full patriotic Technicolor the unlikelihood of meaningful dialogue in our country—or at least in Reno—at this time.
Councilmembers were reluctant to speak publicly about the peace resolution. Pierre Hascheff, who ran the meeting in the absence of Mayor Bob Cashell, offered no comment. David Aiazzi and Sharon Zadra also skipped the meeting.
The typical signals of linear thinking sounded: Dehne and Felton cried treason, elected officials were unwilling or unable to speak out, city staff quashed debate, protesters cried out against war, and a conservative pundit stormed into the face of a weekly reporter who had the audacity to cover the event as though it were a newsworthy topic.
Father Chuck Durante was one of seven citizens who spoke in support of the peace resolution. He said that the proposed war fails morally to meet a “just war” standard and fails legally to comply with international law.
Similar peace resolutions have been adopted by 134 cities nationwide, according to the group Desert Storm Think Tank. Along with concerns about the inability of the Defense Department to protect soldiers from biological and chemical attack, and the monetary cost of war, estimated at $200 billion, the resolution lists numerous objections and calls for the governing body of Reno to oppose “any preemptive strike or act of war contemplated by the President and the Congress.”
Conservative pundit Eddie Anderson spoke against the resolution. The previous night at a County Commission meeting, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Anderson had “shouted” that peace resolution supporters were “cowards.” Now he seemed to take a more politick approach. “I don’t support war,” he said. “I saw the ravages of war. Today I salute those people who are willing to take to the streets to protest.” He spoke of his past as a civil-rights activist. He said we needed to support our president in the war effort.
In the hallway, Anderson’s tact evaporated as, out of the blue, he rushed at a reporter, denouncing the leftist bosses who run the local newsweekly. Later, Councilwoman Toni Harsh commented, mistakenly, that the same RN&R reporter had spoken in favor of the peace resolution during the public-comment period.
In her latest book, writer Joan Didion remarks on America’s “fixed ideas” since 9/11, a cultural unwillingness or inability to form complex thoughts on complex issues. New York Times associate editor Frank Rich seconds Didion’s observation that free political dialogue has been discouraged. Locally, District Attorney Dick Gammick has questioned “what [the peace demonstrators] are thinking.” Nationally, some have interpreted remarks by President Bush as questioning the patriotism of peace demonstrators. Civil libertarians worry that an “us-versus-them” perception has curtailed a citizen’s right to free and open dissent.
Nothing that happened during the council meeting alleviated these fears.
It was impossible for council to adopt or reject the resolution, since it wasn’t actually on the agenda. Nonetheless, when citizens rise to speak passionately on a single issue, it can generally be expected that elected officials will have something to say. In this instance, however, only Jessica Sferrazza spoke, saying that the city didn’t have appropriate information to advise the federal government and that “it may be a disservice to the public to take a position either way.”
According to Axelrod, Sferrazza said privately that if the city were going to pass a resolution, it would pass one in support of war.
Still, if council had a pro-war resolution before it, would Axelrod be so keen to have the body voice an opinion? “I would support public debate on the issue,” she said.
It’s the proper role of city government to take a position on war, she argued, which is ultimately a domestic issue. Cities including Austin, Santa Fe and Seattle appear to agree with her.
According to a recent KTVN Channel 2 survey during a 5:30 p.m. news broadcast, 94 percent of Reno-area respondents opposed the peace resolution.